Paul Smith is a former journalist turned PR, crisis management consultant and media training specialist. Prior to this career change in 1998, his decade in regional newspapers was spent dealing with local and national government at every level. He has interviewed several senior political figures – including Tony Blair, Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson, as well as leading business figures such as Virgin tycoon Richard Branson. Paul heads the content and crisis management team at leading PR consultancy Citypress.
From 'Granny Tax' and 'Pasty Tax' to a panic over fuel, it's been a gruelling week for the government's spin doctors. Citypress content director Paul Smith, a specialist in crisis PR, looks at the government's handling of a public relations disaster.
Politicians have been lining up to buy pasties this week while the public has queued up to buy petrol.
Both are panic buying – local MPs determined to be seen snarfing down a sausage roll in the wake of George Osborne hitting hot snacks with VAT, while drivers are convinced the world will end if they haven’t got enough fuel to join the Easter weekend traffic jams.
The Government’s handling of both issues has been somewhat shambolic, indicative of little joined up communications planning for either.
Osborne’s budget was notable for the simple headlines it spawned. ‘Granny Tax’ and ‘Pasty Tax’ joined the journalistic lexicon and two powerful lobbies rose up; the elderly middle classes and lovers of Greggs, the hot snack retailer which saw £30 million wiped off its shares overnight.
The backlash from both could be foreseen and prepared for but the current Government seems to lack the media savvy of a Malcolm Tucker or an Alistair Campbell.
Labour’s former comms chief spoke eloquently in the North East recently about how you have to test your decisions, even when you have no doubt that you are taking the right one.
This is good crisis management and should be at the heart of any proactive strategy. The Government clearly has conviction in its decision to freeze pensioner tax allowances yet still seems to have rocked by the strength of the backlash.
At least its response hasn’t involved the Prime Minister hugging a passing OAP or regaling media with tales of joshing about with a nonagenarian.
Because that type of approach seems to be the Government’s main response to criticism of the VAT hike on hot food, a complex issue based around the definition of ‘ambient temperature’ which Greggs boss Ken McKelkan believes could cost jobs.
“I love a good pasty and I sometimes go to Cornwall” is not the strongest strategy.
The other issue facing politicians appears to have been their own making.
Faced with the possibility of an unpopular hauliers’ strike, the Government could have sat back and negotiated while unions took the flak for stirring up industrial action.
Instead, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude took it upon himself to urge motorists to horde fuel, directly sparking the panic buying and turning attention firmly back on a Government still licking its Budget wounds.
Another crisis lesson – know when to sit back and say nothing and make sure your troops know when to do the same.
Of course, the Coalition could just be touched with genius…..
Record fuel buying dumps a huge wedge of tax in the Treasury’s coffers and, at this rate, could ensure that a hauliers’ strike becomes pointless as there will be no fuel left in Britain to haul.
Tenner for the first picture of David Cameron loving a lorry driver.
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